DESPITE THE standing ovation that greeted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd following his apology to indigenous Australians last Wednesday, some fear that Rudd may have has lead the Government into a legal minefield.
Hugh Macken, president of the Law Society of New South Wales, wants to put to those fears to rest.
“There has been a lot of conjecture. I’d like to set the record straight concerning, in particular, the issue of compensation. Simply put, the facts speak for themselves. A formal apology to the stolen generations today will not open the floodgates to compensation,” he said.
According to Macken, avenues already exist for victims of the stolen generation to make a claim against the Government for compensation and Wednesday’s apology doesn’t affect this legal position.
“Irrespective of this apology, indigenous Australians have always had a right to make compensation claims, just like any other Australian, for past wrongs,” he said.
“The success of each case is determined by evidence, not by an acknowledgement or an apology by the Commonwealth Parliament. The legal landscape has not changed one dot as a result of the most welcome apology made by the Commonwealth [on Wednesday].
“I think the issue of compensation needs to be addressed separately. So far only a few [indigenous Australians] have made claims. Irrespective of our view of the impact of his, for whatever reason, the victims of the stolen generation have not in the past brought their own claims for compensation and that’s probably unlikely to change greatly in the future.”
Macken expressed his support for the apology, describing it as a “great, just and symbolic gesture in helping us move forward as a nation”.
It has also received the backing of the Law Council of Australia, with president Ross Ray saying that it was “an important acknowledgement of the harm and misery caused by misguided policies of past Australian governments, and discriminatory laws of earlier parliaments”.
Macken has also welcomed the Prime Minister’s proposal to develop a joint policy commission, lead by himself and opposition leader Brendan Nelson, the first priority of which would be to develop a strategy to improve indigenous housing in remote communities. The Commission would then work on gaining constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.
Speaking last week about the need for such a commission, Rudd said: “It’s not sentiment that makes history, its actions.”